Have you ever heard of Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges? Chances are you haven’t, but after you watch the new movie Chevalier starring Kelvin Harrison Jr, you’ll never forget his name again.
Chevalier follows Joseph Bologne (Harrison Jr), a French-Caribbean musician who was born to his enslaved mother and her white owner. Not wanting his son to grow up on a plantation, Joseph’s brought to France by his father, where he proves to be a prodigy with the violin and quickly rises up in French society, where he becomes a favorite of Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton).
One of the best drama movies we’ve seen this year, Chevalier explores concepts of class, racism, and belonging but more than that, though, it’s an incredible film about a man history seems to have forgotten. We were delighted to sit down with Kelvin Harrison Jr. and talk about playing this extraordinary figure. Warning minor spoilers ahead!
The Digital Fix: Hey Kelvin, I hope you’re well. We’ll start at the begining. Can you remember what your first reaction was when you read the Chevalier script?
Kelvin Harrison Jr: I was just kind of hyped and excited. I couldn’t believe this dude existed. He’s so cool. He’s not a boring, stuffy, compliant character.
He was defiant. He was sexy. He was rebellious. He spoke his mind. He apparently dressed really well. I was like; this sounds like a fun character for an actor to play, but also just excited about the opportunity to be able to share this real-life character with the world.
So I take it then you weren’t aware of Joseph’s story before you read the script?
Not even a little bit. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t heard of him. But nah, nothing.
This is probably a bit of a deep question, considering how early it but what do you think drove Joseph to greatness? Do you think it was inherent? Or do you think the fact that he lived in a society that looked down on him pushed him to prove himself to people?
I want to say it’s both, and in addition to that, I think it was this desire to find community and love. From what I researched, Joseph’s passion came from a place of love. It was from his mother. It was from the music of their community and culture. It was from seeing fiddle players that looked like him.
A lot of artists, their first love is their craft, and I think for Joseph, that’s what it was. When you’re trying to find that, which we’re all seeking for that in our lives, is to find our ultimate love, you go through anything for that? I mean, we see it all the time with Romeo and Juliet, we see it in Titanic, we see it in The Notebook, you know what I mean? That’s a tale as old as time, but I think that will drive a man to get to where he does.
Do you think there’s a world where Joseph and Marie-Josephine could ever have been happy?
I’m sure there’s a world that could have been happy together. I don’t think they sought each other out because of true connection, per se, but more so, they were going through similar experiences, and they were looking for power. They felt impotent in their spaces, and they both were trying to figure out how do we break out of the cages that have been, you know, that we’ve been put in?
We’re gonna have to talk a little bit about you playing the violin because your cast and crew have spoken at length about the effort you put into learning the violin.
Yeah, I mean, I tried to get out of it. I begged Steven, and I said, Can we get a photo double? Please, please, let’s do some movie magic. Please, please. He said, ‘No. Do you want this job?’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ He said, ‘Well, then you’re gonna learn the violin.’ I said, ‘All right.’
So it started in Australia. I was filming Elvis, and obviously, I’m getting to witness Austin do what he’s done with Elvis, and you look at work ethic, and you get inspired. So I got a violin teacher immediately, and I got a violin. Then I worked with him for a little bit, and then I went home to my dad, who was a classical music teacher.
We came up with a plan for the remainder of my time to prepare for the movie. So we did about five months, obviously with additional violin teachers over this period of time, but five months, seven days a week, six hours a day, and by the time I got to the shoot, it was 10-hour work days, with one hour of fencing after the after wrap, then two hours of violin, learn your lines, go to sleep repeat.
So I knew that I only had to do it for a period of time. There was an end date, so it was easy to kind of just keep your eye on the prize and just be really diligent and focused about it. If you really wanted to authentically allow the audience to experience what the French society experienced, the French people experienced from witnessing Joseph.
The scene that opens the film is like a violin duel between Joseph and Mozart. That’s literally one of the coolest things I think I’ve seen in the cinema this year, but it’s just two guys sort of playing the violin. Can you tell me a little bit about filming that scene?
Yeah, it was one of the first things Steven and I talked about, so we had a lot of time to prep it. And there were a lot of rehearsals, like it started with just choreographing the space. Like I have videos of me doing the violin duel with just a chair to see what it felt like and trying to figure out what is Joseph’s inner rock star. How far can we go?
We talked a lot about like Pince and how Prince moves and how Hendrix moves. Can it feel like a guitar solo, or is it too contemporary? And so there were all these little adjustments. Obviously, I had an etiquette coach, but also a movement coach who worked with Austin as well on Elvis. She’s brilliant, a genius.
So we went through that process. And, and then by the time we got to the day, you know, a week before, I think I took Joe, who plays Mozart, and we went into like a hotel room conference room, and we just rehearsed every day, five days a week all day, just going through the tunes making sure that we were picking up each other’s phrases, making sure that our bowls went on alignment.
It was cool, Michael April wrote a composition that is supposed to speak to the fact that there are two people doing the exact same thing, and one just has a little bit more flavor than the other at this moment in time. Then shooting on the day was epic. We were so prepared that we just had fun. Everyone was excited. It was kind of just cool, you know?
Do you think Marie Antoinette is the villain of the film?
I don’t think so. I think she is a victim. I think she’s one of those people. That is when you’re abused, and you’re disrespected. You tend to get defensive, just like Joseph says. I believe Joseph moves in a way that is defensive. He’s trying to protect his own sanity.
Marie Antoinette is a young lady who was shipped off to France and asked to produce an heir, you know, and that’d be troubling for any person, especially a young woman. Then she’s kind of judged and given a hard time and given a sense that she doesn’t belong because of it. So her efforts to try to bring arts to the fringe society and find a way that she can contribute s just her asking, ‘Oh, how do I fit in here? What can I do to make people like me?’
That’s the same thing Joseph is doing. Now, is it selfish? Yes. Is the comment about humanity kind of like, ‘Are we innately kind of moving in a selfish way’? Yes. Isn’t that the problem with the whole economic system and everything else that we do? Yes. But I wouldn’t say she’s a villain. She’s just damaged.
Chevalier is in cinemas across the UK on June 9, 2023.
If you want to know more about upcoming releases, we have a list of all the new movies coming in 2023 and deep dives on some of the year’s biggest films. So if you want to know about the Barbie release date, the Oppenheimer release date, or the Mission Impossible 7 release date.